Special to Golf News Net, by Yaj Ammelf
MARCY, N.Y. – As the sun sets behind the bucolic hills of an upstate New York valley, a threesome makes its way up the first fairway of Crestwood Golf Club.
They teed off on the second hole and are playing to the ninth green.
“This is wicked fun!” marveled golfer Mike Mosely, as he smashed his approach shot between two groups of trees toward the fringe of the green. The 40-yard gap between the tall hardwoods that separate the first and ninth holes is a perfect opening for the stirring shot that brings to a close the “Front 7” – a group of reversed and otherwise scrambled golf holes that, nevertheless, still play to a par of 36. As 20 golfers participating in a nearby clinic looked on, Mosely pitched to a foot and made the putt for par to the delight of the impromptu gallery.
That made lunch at the turn taste pretty good, Mosely said later.
Meanwhile, at the Heritage Club in southern Vermont, a golfer stands a mere 60 yards from the first green, yet smashes a 3-wood over the green, through some trees and 150 yards down the second fairway.
“That’s the green we’re going for,” he says, pointing at the second green. We can barely see the ball as it lands over 200 yards away. It’s still early on a late fall day and high on what was once called Haystack Mountain the fog came in thick, like steam from a witch’s cauldron. When it actually started to snow before the shotgun start, all 48 players started to cheer. That’s how hardcore they are.
“This is our favorite day of the year! It’s like a festival!” the player exclaimed joyfully, donning a thick ski cap and heading off down he fairways that PGA Tour pro Keegan Bradley played as a child. Bradley’s dad was head professional back in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
It’s all part of a phenomenon that dates back to the earliest years of the Old Course at St. Andrews. Whether it’s playing the golf course in reverse, or playing cross-country by hop-scotching across fairways to faraway greens, golfers are delighting in hacking the traditional routing and playing a version of the game more akin to the days of golf’s infancy: just pick a target and go, and try not to get stuck in what’s in between. Play the course as you find it indeed.
Most golf fans know that the Old Course at St. Andrews was originally 22 holes, but many might be surprised to learn that the course was, for many years, played in the opposite direction, clockwise, instead of counter-clockwise as it is today. As a throwback to those days, once a year, usually in April, guests can play the “Reverse Old Course,” and many make the trek from around the world to do it.
Writing about the Reverse Old Course routing for online think tank and magazine GolfClubAtlas.com, Jeremy Glenn wrote, “It is in large part due to its simplicity and linearity that in can be played both ways. As is well known, most greens serve a double function, with two flags being each approached from opposite directions. Furthermore, the vast treeless landscape along the coastline, combined with the close proximity of tees and greens, allows the golf course to be seen as one core entity, rather than eighteen separate components.”
What makes the reverse routing so brilliant is that the playing corridors are similar, but the hazards are traversed and greens approached from markedly different angles. Amazingly, the Reverse Old Course works as its own stand-alone design– a contiguous whole from 1-18, with strategic challenges as strong as the regular routing.
Similarly, the concept of cross-country golf is also a throwback to formative years of the game.
“We get the terms ‘out’ and 'in’ from the days when the Scots would meet the Dutch as the ships docked and play 'out' from the ships, along the linksland, towards the town for their mercantile meetings, then back 'in' to the ships,” explained golf expert Bruce Moulton. “Cross-country golf hearkens back to the days when players would just pick a point and play to it. Whoever won the honor would get to choose the next target, and off they’d go again.”
Perhaps the idea reached its American pinnacle (thus far) at what the golf cognoscenti call the “Sheep Ranch,” or “Bally Bandon,” a diamond-shaped peninsula of land owned by Mike Keiser though not a part of his wildly successful Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. Situated just north of the Tom Doak-designed Pacific Dunes course, it contains nine tees, 13 greens and a peppering of bunkers and other hazards. The “scorecard” reads like a slide rule, because instead of following a numeric routing, whoever has the honor on any particular hole can pick any green on the property he wants as the next target. The slide-rule will state the yardage and par, and upon completing the hole, whoever has the honors can pick any other green to play to next. Play was limited to two groups a day, for around $100, and you had to get access by traveling into town to a local shop, asking for the right individual, who would then allow you entry to the course. Secret handshake stuff indeed, yet wonderfully holistic as well. You could play there every day for a year – perhaps even several - and never play the same course twice.
“We only wanted to give people a ‘mileage chart’ from every green to every other green, and turn them loose, with possibly a few suggestions as to what were the better holes,” explained Tom Doak in an earlier interview, confiding how he was quite enamored with the player’s ability to create a new golf course each and every time he teed it up at the Sheep Ranch.
While we have lost the Sheep Ranch to the Bandon Dunes Resort’s meteoric success and corresponding growth – it will become a par-3 course and be brought under the resort’s control -- Doak is now designing a truly reversible golf course at Forest Dunes in Michigan, not far from his beloved home of Crystal Downs. With a successful Tom Weiskopf design already on property, owner Lew Thompson gave Doak the green light to build a fully reversible course, playable both ways and equally strong in either direction. The course will open next year.
“We just had to make sure that the best holes were evenly distributed relatively equally between the two loops, so that one version of the course doesn’t trump the other,” Doak stated. "Which ever way you playing it, it never feels like you’re going the wrong way.”
Doak further explained that the key to the design was making sure that the greens were approachable from 360 degrees.
Other architects have attempted the idea before. Tom Weiskopf drew up plans for a reversible golf course in Idaho, but it was never built. Also Robert Trent Jones, Jr. submitted a totally reversible golf course as his entry for the Rio Olympics course – the idea being the women could play one way, while the men played another - but it ultimately lost out to Gil Hanse’s bid. Jones may attempt the idea in a future course, perhaps even the highly anticipated complete redesign of the West Course at Dorado Beach.
Meanwhile at Crestwood, Mosely stares down his approach to the second green…from the third fairway, a 90-degree turn away form where he would normally play the shot and with a completely different hazard guarding the approach.
“It’s astounding how different the terrain looks when you are coming down the fairway from the other side,” beams a visibly impressed Mosely. “It’s like a whole other golf course…it’s completely different but just as fun and equally tough.”
“Oh that is cool!” gasped frequent Crestwood player Pat Tomaino as he attempted the same shot. “You really have to concentrate on positioning yourself to come in from correct angles because sometimes greens slope away from you or from side-to-side. But you get to play all sorts of different short game shots you don’t see playing from the normal direction.”
After holing out for a par 5, he retreats to the sixth tee for a drive into the second fairway, where he’ll traverse nearly 600 yards to reach the first green.
With the wild success of the idea buoyed by adventurous golfers everywhere, creative greens chairmen now are scheduling their own reverse or cross-country days at their clubs to both meet the demand and provide a refreshingly new experience to their members or patrons.
“We have a day at Pradera where we play from the tee box to the preceding green,” said golf architect Jim Engh, referring to the rugged, breathtaking private design in Parker, Colo., where he has a home on the 16th fairway. “It’s a lot of par 3s, but where the greens and tees are situated, it makes for some really exciting shots.”
Whether it’s playing the course as par 3s, from the tee to the green behind you as Engh did, or teeing up the ball a few yards in front of the green and playing to the green in reverse direction, or a full plotting your own cross-country routing, the idea of hacking the course and playing more holistically and creatively is being embraced and is growing. It works best on courses with no rough and few trees in the way, like Crestwood or the great links courses – both classic and modern, but the Heritage Club makes it work by allowing players to tee up the ball in the fairway.
“That way we can combine two holes into one long hole and golfers can hit over any trees that might be in the way,” explains Heritage Club teaching pro Mark Aeblt.
No matter which way you pay it, reverse or cross country golf call for creative shotmaking and proper placement. It’s a whole new way to see your golf course and a refreshing change of pace tired old scrambles or medal play.
“This is definitely our coolest day of the year, both metaphorically and literally,” said Heritage golfer after Heritage golfer as they braved the wind and snow. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”